One of the rights of passage when travelling in India, especially if you are on some sort of spiritual journey (which most seem to be), is to stay in an ashram. Although I had made no plans and done no research before I left for this trip, an ashram stay was definitely on my mental to-do list, and I ended up staying in two – each very different to the other. The first: Amma’s ashram, Amritapuri.
Mata Amritanandamayi, or Amma (Mother), as she is affectionately known by her droves of followers, is India’s most famous female guru, and has amassed worldwide fame for her humanitarian efforts and unusual form of ‘darshan’ (a guru’s audience with her followers) – hugs. Amma is prized to have embraced over 34 million strangers in her guru career to date (surely a Guinness record breaker?) and regularly conducts hugging sessions across the globe for up to twenty hours non-stop, during which hundreds and thousands of her devotees wait desperately for their chance for a healing embrace in her bosom.
I know all this now, but I confess I’d never heard of Amma before visiting the ashram so came with few expectations – only tagging along really with some nice yogi travellers I’d met in Varkala, not far away. It sounded like too interesting an opportunity to miss: a large Indian woman healing the world with hugs? A definite must-see! As my first ashram experience however, it was probably an odd ‘choice’, as I don’t think this beast of a place, housing 3,000 permanent residents and hundreds more ‘vacationers’ in numerous pink skyscrapers, is by any means typical.
Here were my impressions of it…
Because of the sheer volume of inhabitants and tourists it caters for, perhaps inevitably, the ashram feels quite commercial. There is an official check-in process, at a designated time, during which you are assigned a room in a same-sex dorm. First though, you must read and agree to the ‘rules’. These include, but are not limited to, dressing modestly (loose, long-sleeved, clothing – including whilst swimming for women), no public displays of affection, no alcohol or smoking on the premises, a curfew of 11pm, celibacy…all pretty standard for a place of worship I suppose, but I did find some of the requirements a bit jarring. You were told not to go to the beach, for example, except at designated times during group meditation in the morning and evening, and were advised not to visit or buy food in the local village, for fear of upsetting the locals and/or getting food poisoning. (I did both incidentally, and neither happened. In fact many of the locals stopped to chat and take pictures with my me and my friend.)
The first hour or so in the ashram I must say I felt pretty ill at ease. After leaving my bags in the dorm room – very basic, but considering we were only paying 250 rupees (about £2.50) a day, which included three meals, I could hardly complain – I went for a wander in the grounds below. The first thing that struck me was the countless photos, posters and stickers of Amma adorning the walls everywhere around. Slightly unnerving. I also got my first impression of Amma devotion in the lift when the elderly Indian woman next to me, dressed all in white, as her followers do by way of respect, muttered Amma’s name repeatedly under her breath like some sort of mantra.
Walking through the main hall, I also felt an odd energy in the air. Many people were gathered on stage, sitting cross-legged on the floor; others sat on chairs or the floor facing the stage, mostly with their eyes closed. Although no one spoke there was a hum in the air and a dense feeling in the atmosphere. What I didn’t realise at the time was that Amma herself was on stage giving darshan, and all these people in the room were meditating, consciously directing their thoughts towards their idol.
After meeting up with my travelling buddies again (we’d been separated at check-in as they were sent to the male dorm; I the female), I relaxed a little however. We soon found a café selling coffee and cakes (something about coffee and cake makes me feel at home I guess!) and we people-watched as we settled into our surroundings. It was easy to spot the loyal followers from the tourists passing through, by the head-to-toe white attire of Amma’s ‘children’. Many also seemed to walk around in a trance-like state; their hands folded in front of them, their eyes on the floor. Others chatted however and when I heard laughter I was somewhat relieved that I hadn’t entered a place completely devoid of any emotion, other than guru worship. And there was a parrot, which was pretty entertaining.
Later we had a guided tour of the ashram with one of its long-term residents, who was absolutely brilliant. An American in his late sixtees or early seventies I’m guessing, he had a dry sense of humour that reminded me a bit of my late grandfather. After showing us a propaganda-esque film about Amma and her many charitable contributions, we were taken around the various hubs of the ashram – namely the dining areas, temple, and numerous gift shops selling Amma memorabilia, white clothing to blend in with the other inhabitants and various natural products produced on –site (confounding my point about its commercialisation). Our guide told us where the smoking area was (hidden just outside the gates), and how to get to another beach an hour’s walk away, where women wouldn’t be required to bathe fully clothed. I suppose I liked the fact he was down-to-earth and conveyed information practically, rather than trying to ‘convert’ us.
Later that evening I got to see what all the fuss was about: I had my first darshan with Amma. The process was quite formal but at the same time relaxed. We first had to collect a ticket, which allocated a time slot to start the queuing process, done sitting on a row of chairs lined up first along the length of the hall and then on the stage. The chairs weaved their way towards Amma, who sat on a sort of throne in the middle, surrounded by her aids.
Although I didn’t expect to, I must say I felt something quite profound during this waiting time. As I sat on the plastic chairs in the hushed but electrified atmosphere in the room, the only real noise the hypnotic music being played live by musicians in front of the stage, I found myself closing my eyes and slipping into a meditative state without even trying. The energy in the air intensified greatly as we made it onto the stage. Shifting every couple of minutes to the next seat, at times the person next to me had to nudge me to move as I was miles away in my thoughts, deep in a place of self-reflection. I won’t share the thoughts I had with you, as they were quite personal, but I was certainly surprised by the things going through my mind during this time. I was even close to tears as I approached the final few chairs sitting between Amma and me.
The hug itself was perhaps an anti-climax after the thoughts and feelings I’d experienced in the build up. I don’t know what I was expecting; in fact I think I was too closed and guarded in my surroundings to embrace the situation in full. As one of her aids pushed me into Amma’s bosom I mostly noticed the smell of her perfume and wondered what the words that she whispered in my ear meant. We’d heard of Amma giving people mantras, so I thought, quite excitedly, perhaps it was that (incomprehensible of course as not in English); however later when we shared our experiences it turns out we all heard the same thing. I’m still to discover what that meant.
So my hug was perhaps not all that healing; nevertheless I did feel something in that place – a healing energy for sure. After spending a few days in the ashram and speaking to some of the long-term residents, I also came to learn more what Amma means to many people. The stories I found both inspiring and disturbing.
One woman I met for example had been living in the ashram on and off for twelve years. Her story was quite depressing to be honest: within minutes of chatting to us, she divulged her life history of destructive relationships with men, through which it became clear she was deeply insecure, lacking in self-worth, and desperate for approval. When she described the way in which Amma had ‘saved her’ I pitied her if I’m honest. It felt to me that she had not in fact been saved, but had simply replaced a dependency on men for love and security, with a dependency on Amma.
What this experience confounded in me is that I’m personally still ill at ease with the premise of guru worship and probably always will be. For that reason I couldn’t really get into my comfort zone whilst there. After a few days I was itching to leave. I didn’t see what more I could learn from a place where essentially I felt like a stranger, even a fraud, intruding on others’ place of devotion, where I knew that I would never give myself fully.
Yes, I am on what I’ve called a healing journey, and I’m open to all the opportunities and experiences that may bring… But I don’t want to be like that woman, ‘saved’ by another person, whether that be a man, a guru, or anyone else for that matter. My journey is a personal one and my intention is to find peace and happiness from the inside out. That to me is the only route to true and lasting healing.
I did get something out of the visit however; in particular, waking at six or seven each morning and practicing yoga on the rooftop, facing the rising sun. And the beautiful sunsets, taken in while sitting on the beach for evening meditation. Those experiences were very nourishing and grounding for me. Plus I believe it’s good to challenge yourself by putting yourself in situations that take you out of your comfort zone. It’s interesting what emotions can come up. So, as with all the experiences on my journey so far, it taught me something, and that I’m grateful for.